Lifting the Curtain on the Nation: The Theater and Chilean National Identity in El ideal de un calavera

In his novels, Chilean author Alberto Blest Gana uses realistic cuadros de costumbres accounts to instill the public with patriotic ideals.  Like other nineteenth-century authors, Blest Gana purposefully uses literature to impart knowledge of unique national identities, customs, and values that establish a distinct and independent culture (Sommer 7).  The intent behind the mannerism descriptions is to establish a unified, hegemonic national culture, but they also reveal a conflicted and multicultural society that is far from homogeneous (Unzueta 145).  These differences contribute to a unique national identity and reveal what it truly means to be Chilean.  In Blest Gana's El ideal de un calavera (1863), perhaps the most fascinating window into Chilean national identity is the theater scene.  The theater scene depicts popular Chilean culture, but it also reveals the tension caused by Independence and the nation's quest to break with the past in order to build a modern future. The theater, as a literary art form, is connected to postcolonial Chilean identity.  The tremendous effort and cost associated with a full-scale theatrical performance meant that productions were limited and simple prior to independence.  The theater only truly developed as an art form in the years following independence (Silva Castro 37).  Since the theater remained unassociated with colonial identity, it became an avenue to promote Chilean nationalism. 

The theater scene in El ideal de un calavera takes full advantage of nationalistic displays and encourages greater inclusion in the democratic principles that guide the young nation.  I argue that the overlying purpose of the theater scene in Blest Gana's novel is to bridge the gap between diverse social classes by inspiring a shared national identity.  The theater invites all citizens to make appropriate contributions to the nation-building project (Blest Gana 139).  It also addresses the issues, attitudes, and tensions that are putting the nation-building project in jeopardy.  While the theater may question the powers that have traditionally led Chile, it still suggests that the educated elite are the key to building a stable and successful nation.  The unique space of the theater blurs social divides and suggests that the diverse social classes can unite in a common, shared, public experience.  The communal experience of the theater leads to greater objectivity and establishes greater understanding between the classes (Yeats 337).  Blest Gana's theater avoids subjective emotion and outdated popular culture, emphasizing instead the collective sentiment found in the audience as a whole (Blest Gana141).  The shared experience of the theater inspires those in attendance to look towards Chile's future as a new and progressive nation rather than towards its backward colonial past.

Track: 

  • Spanish American Studies